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The Desert Speaks

KUAT-TV series celebrates 10 years of broadcasts around the world

A.J. FLICK Citizen TV Writer

In 10 years, a saguaro grows one inch.

In 10 years, KUAT-TV has taken the Sonoran Desert around the world.

KUAT’s acclaimed ”The Desert Speaks” series marks its 10th anniversary with a compilation episode tomorrow night on Channel 6.

The program, which originated as a radio and then a TV program for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, has gone from exploring every inch of the museum grounds to traveling throughout the Southwest. Along the way, it has collected 19 Emmy Awards and has been seen as far away as Japan and Spain.

”The most gratifying thing,” said videographer/director Dan Duncan, ”is that we’re sharing the Sonoran Desert not just regionally and nationally, but internationally.”

Not documented are the many scrapes (literally and figuratively) received in the process.

”We’ve had a lot of close calls,” said Duncan.

On the Sea of Cortez, a crew battled 20-foot waves. Crews have been detained on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. And one soundman forced himself to stay perfectly still as battling snakes slid down a hill and onto his boot.

”And these guys saved my life!” Duncan said, referring to producer Tom Kleespie and others on his crew.

Duncan, unaware that he was allergic to bee stings, removed a protective glove while shooting an episode on ”killer” bees in Sonoita.

”All of a sudden, my finger started to swell,” he recalled. ”They rushed me back to the hospital. I owe my life to these guys!”

The show also taught ”The Desert Speaks” crew another lesson on Sonoran Desert wildlife.

”’Killer’ bees are unlike any other animal in the desert,” Kleespie noted. ”Other animals do their best to coexist with you. All ‘killer’ bees want to do is kill you. That’s their job.”

As a reminder, the crew saved two stuffed dolls used as an experiment with the bees. A white doll incurred a couple dozen stings while the bees stung the black doll innumerable times.

”This is certainly a different working environment than normal,” Kleespie said, smiling.

KUAT creative services manager Michael Serres noted that Duncan and Kleespie often turn good ideas into stunning TV with their sense of adventure.

”They don’t just get in a van with a tripod and drive off the road to shoot,” Serres said. ”They’re in a four-wheel-drive Suburban, driving across the border into the hottest, driest part of the desert, and say, ‘Now, where we want to be is on top of that ridge,’ so they shoulder the equipment and hike to the top.

”It’s different than your average news-gathering technique.”

The series is produced by KUAT, the Desert Museum and The Nature Conservancy’s Arizona Chapter with funding from ASARCO Inc. and the Arizona Game & Fish Department’s Heritage Fund.

After 10 years of producing ”The Desert Speaks,” there’s no shortage of program ideas, Kleespie said.

”I’d love to see us go down to Peru, where there’s a desert that’s a lot like ours,” Duncan said. ”It’s the same distance from the equator, only south versus north. There are a lot of similarities, like they have cholla.”

With evolving TV technology including high-definition television, KUAT’s sophistication has grown, but its goal remains.

”We’re just telling stories,” Duncan said. ”Technology gives us enhanced tools, but that’s nothing without a good story. PBS wouldn’t air an episode just because it was recorded in high definition. It has to tell a good story.”

KUAT using HDTV for nature programming

For the first time in southern Arizona, and for only the second time in the state, a TV program has been recorded in the innovative high-definition television format.

”The analogy everyone uses is, going from black-and-white TV to color,” said KUAT’s Tom Kleespie of HDTV.

”We’re on the front lines of a new technology, a new age,” said Dan Duncan, who shot the HDTV footage for KUAT.

In November, KUAT invited guests to preview ”River of Iron: Dreams of a Grand Canyon Railroad,” an HDTV-recorded episode of ”The Desert Speaks.”

Seeing the Grand Canyon in HDTV is almost like seeing the real thing. The colors are incredible, the most-minute details easily seen. Watching rafters float down the Colorado River, it was easy to imagine the splash of water on the face.

”River of Iron: Dreams of a Grand Canyon Railroad” will air locally Feb. 10 and nationally March 20. Without an HDTV set, though, the only difference the viewer will see will be the letterboxed format.

Only people with HDTV sets, which sell for $3,500 to $7,000, may see the improved images and hear the enhanced sound. The price of HDTV sets is expected to drop within a few years.

KUAT’s two HDTV-recorded shows are being used as examples of what HDTV can accomplish. Sony Corp. used KUAT shots in its HDTV presentation at the last National Association of Broadcasters convention. And PBS will soon add footage from ”The Desert Speaks” HDTV shows in its continuous satellite loop of HDTV.

In addition to ”River of Iron,” ”Kartchner Caverns: Alive With Wonder” was recorded in HDTV. It will air March 9 on KUAT and later, nationally, on PBS.

”When you have good technology, there’s no better subject than nature,” said Kleespie, producer of ”The Desert Speaks.” ”Shooting the Grand Canyon and Kartchner Caverns in HDTV was a perfect fit, a natural.”

Besides HDTV’s obvious aesthetic values – increased depth of field, colors that can be digitally tweaked – the format also will allow easy archiving.

”That’s one reason Kartchner Caverns gave us access to places that are off-limits to everyone else, places where a camera has never been before,” Kleespie said.

”The Desert Speaks” history

1950 – The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum creates the ”Desert Trails” radio show as part of its outreach program.

1953 – Harold W. ”Hal” Gras is named host of the new ”Desert Trails” TV show on KVOA.

1963 – ”Desert Trails” moves to KOLD.

1985 – Gras retires; Lauray Yule becomes host. Then-KOLD weatherman Jimmy Stewart co-hosts.

1990 – ”Desert Trails,” the oldest locally produced show in the country, moves to KUAT Channel 6 and is renamed ”The Desert Speaks,” with hosts Yule and actor Don Collier.

1991 – Yule leaves; Collier becomes sole host.

1993 – The Nature Conservancy’s Arizona Chapter joins the Desert Museum as program producer.

1994 – Improved video cameras enhance the show’s videography.

1996 – For the first time, two episodes are expanded to an hour – one on whale watching in Baja California and one on the Grand Canyon.

1997 – The episode ”Grand Canyon Flood!” airs nationally and becomes PBS’ second-highest-rated show that July.

1998 – For the first time, in ”Pinacate the Mysterious,” an episode includes a historic reenactment – a 1907 expedition to Mexico’s volcanic fields.

2000 – The second station in the state to do so, KUAT films two programs in high-definition television format (HDTV), a first for southern Arizona.

”The Desert Speaks” 10th season

(Shows will air in this order but not necessarily weekly.)

”The Desert Speaks” 10th Anniversary – Clips from all 10 seasons.

”River of Iron, Dreams of a Grand Canyon Railroad” – Tracing the historic exploits of Robert Brewster Stanton. Hosted by N. Scott Momaday.

”In the Land of the Guarij√≠o” – A documentary on Indians living in the southern portion of Sonora, Mexico, in the Sierra Madre.

”Mesquite: Tree of Life” – The role of the mesquite in the desert Southwest.

”The Roadrunner and the Coyote” – Unlike the famous cartoon duo, these two rarely meet.

”Kartchner Caverns: Alive With Wonder” – Exploring the beauty and natural wonder of a ”living cave.”

”The Salton Sea” – A look at the geological past and present of the ancient seabed.

”Rock & Road Trip” – A college geology class takes a field trip through the upper stretches of Sonora, Mexico.

”The People of the Mangroves” – The people of Magdalena Bay along the Pacific side of Baja California live off the bounty of the mangrove trees.

”Home on the Range” – A day in the life of a ranching family in southern Arizona’s San Rafael Valley along the Arizona-Mexico border.


What: ”The Desert Speaks” – 10th anniversary show and season premiere

When: 8 p.m. tomorrow, repeating 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: KUAT Channel 6 (PBS)

Details: http://kuat.org

PHOTOS: Photos by Dan Duncan of KUAT

”The Desert Speaks” series has gotten up close and personal with such creatures of the desert as lizards (top left) and rattlers (right). The program has also captured amazing moments in nature, such as the moon setting over the Grand Canyon, captured in high-definition television last year.

The excitement of rafting down the Colorado River is captured in high-definition television for ”River of Iron: Dreams of a Grand Canyon Railroad.”

Don Collier became sole host of ”The Desert Speaks” in 1991.

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